Change Policy in Rhode Island: A Personal Perspective

Summary: Allen Smith, a rising 3L at Vermont Law School, spent the summer in Rhode Island working on climate change policy in both the Statehouse and the Department of Environmental Management. While not only seeing a Climate Bill signed into law, but also being an active part of the implementation process with various state agencies, Smith describes what it was like to work with state officials on a daily basis and the rewarding nature of environmental policy work.

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By Allen Smith

ASmith_RI State HouseThis past summer, through my work with the Rhode Island State Government Internship Program, I was part of an extraordinary effort that resulted in Rhode Island being the 11th state to pass comprehensive climate change legislation.  The program places students with state officials to gain relevant policy and legal experience.  I chose to intern for Representative Arthur Handy, Chair of the Rhode Island House Environmental and Natural Resources Committee, because he was passionate about environmental policy issues and was in the process of writing and sponsoring a bill addressing climate change.

Upon starting my internship, I was immediately brought into a long process that had been ongoing since 2007.  A working group at the Brown University Climate and Development Lab put in a lot of time helping Representative Handy write the bill, which was signed into law by Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee July 2, 2014 and titled “The Resilient RI Act”.  Though both the Senate and House versions ended up being signed, the effort to write the bill was first initiated by Representative Handy and other members of the House, as well as researchers in the Brown University working group, which included students, professors, state officials, and outside consultants.  The bill sets clear mitigation goals for greenhouse gas emissions reduction (10% below 1990 levels by 2020, 45% below 1990 levels by 2035, and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050) and contains measures for climate change adaptation.  One particularly rewarding part of my experience in the House was speaking with members of the general assembly about the bill, including the House Speaker.  Approaching conversations from the perspective of a student rather than a lobbyist brought many interesting responses and allowed me to connect with representatives in a unique yet significant way.  Ultimately, while some representatives were adamantly against climate change legislation, the bill passed through the House by a margin of 59-6.  For more information about the Resilient RI Act, please visit: http://www.resilientri.org/.

Additionally, I spent the second half of the summer interning for the Department of Environmental Management (DEM), where I did research on different statewide approaches to climate change in order to help the department implement the climate bill under the guidance of Executive Counsel Mary Kay.  In the wake of the climate bill’s passage, there is a great need to implement the new law effectively and hold other state agencies accountable in the process.  Conducting research into how other states were responding to the issue of climate change was incredibly informative and useful to Rhode Island and the DEM, which is ultimately tasked with much of the implementation process.  To complement my research, I also visited numerous state officials working in the Office of Energy Resources and the Office of the Treasurer.  Representative Handy and many other staff members within the DEM are particularly interested in amending the Climate Bill next session to include language on green bonding initiatives.  I looked into what states like Connecticut and New York were doing, such as creating Green Banks and Clean Energy Investment Finance mechanisms, to provide the DEM with recommendations moving forward.

While many environmental advocacy groups in Rhode Island were critical of the way the state was handling environmental policy issues—particularly with the lack of funding and support for green infrastructure and transportation projects—I knew now was not the time to be critical.  Keeping a level head and providing accurate, rational advice ended up being the best way to promote effective policy change in various state departments.  While much is still to be determined, especially with a new administration coming in when the new governor is elected in November, the state remains hopeful and optimistic that state officials are taking the issue of climate change seriously, and increasingly more businesses, especially those most vulnerable to sea level rise, are showing their support of the legislation.

For any student interested in policy work and climate change, my internship provided a rich perspective which I will bring to my future studies and career, and I highly recommend others take a similar path if they are passionate about environmental policy work.

 ASmith_HeadshotAllen Smith is a rising 3L at VLS and is pursuing a Certificate in Land Use Law.  He is also a Board Fellow with the Stowe Land Trust and is the 3L Senator in the Food & Agriculture Law Society (FALS).  Before working in Rhode Island, Smith  spent the previous summer interning with the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board in Montpelier, where his work centered on land conservation, including monitoring over 120 conservation easements and producing baseline documentation reports for select parcels.  Smith is interested in the interconnection between land use, agriculture, water, and energy law, as well as the role of climate change policy in each of those areas.